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The Inner Critic
One of the greatest deterrents to creativity is the inner voice that constantly whispers in our ear that we're not good enough, that nobody will approve of what we're doing, and that they don't really like us anyway.
critic" becomes our constant companion, not only in our work, but
The inner critic begins as a survival mechanism. When we're children, part of our parents' job is to teach us socially acceptable behavior. In doing so, even the best parents inevitably curb our natural instincts.
there must be something innately wrong with us, and it hurts or
In order to avoid future pain, we start telling ourselves what's
with us before others in our world get around to it.
As we grow up, we internalize all those outer voices, the criticisms and
limiters on our natural behavior. This becomes our "inner critic," whose
job is to store all the rules and then chastise us for not following them.
Ironically, our inner voice can become harsher and more persistent than the
outer ones ever were. We punish ourselves emotionally, and sometimes
physically with such things as addictions. What began as a protector
The inner critic will show up at different times and in different ways. One
minute, it will tell us how hopeless we are, and the next, how much better
we are than everyone else. It will appear more commonly in some areas of
our lives -- usually the ones we feel less secure about -- than others. It
will often speak up when we're feeling tired or threatened, and when things
are going well and we feel good about ourselves, it'll remind us that we'll
never be able to sustain it. When we're in the throes of creating, the
vulnerability we feel is an open door for the critic to step in and judge
and our work.
* The first step in dealing with the inner critic is to recognize it as a
It is a voice within you, but it's not you. This voice has been your
constant companion since childhood, and it's likely so much a part of you,
you breathe, that you hardly even notice it.
Realize that these are the combined voices of all the authority figures you
grew up with -- parents, teachers, religious leaders or just about any
adult. When you were small, not heeding these voices could result in
emotional pain or humiliation.
Your inner critic may even reflect the voices of childhood friends. We all
wanted so desperately to belong, yet most of us are not strangers to being
hurt or humiliated because we were different. When I was about ten, a
"caring" friend told me that other kids thought I was conceited. It took me
many years to let go of that voice, and it certainly kept me from being and
for fear of losing friends if I allowed myself to shine.
* Next, begin to listen to what the voice says.
Make note of the repetitive messages you hear. How does your critic speak
to you? What names does it call you? Does it speak to you in a demeaning
way, calling you "stupid" or worse? How does it find fault with you? Are
issues it tends to pick on?
Notice if there is a particular voice that dominates. Do you constantly
hear your mother saying that men don't like smart women, or your father
saying that art is for sissies? Sometimes, merely identifying the voice,
and understanding that you're now old enough to make your own choices, will
Also, step back and look objectively at what the voice is saying. Is it
true? If not, acknowledge what is true. If it is, what action can you take?
Is there a skill you need to acquire? A discipline you need to institute?
Are you setting impossible standards for yourself that need to be more
realistic? Whose approval are you looking for? Is it worth sacrificing your
get it? Will you ever really get it anyway?
* How is your critic trying to protect you from pain?
Remember, your critic came into being to prevent you from behaving in a way
that would bring you shame or humiliation. It's not likely that you need
the same degree of policing you needed as a small child, yet the voice
keeps up the tirade. Perhaps it's time to tell the voice to leave you alone
a new focus, like pointing out your strengths!
* Once you've begun to recognize the patterns, begin to change them.
As you become more conscious of what the voice is saying, you can
"reprogram" it. How would you talk to a child in this situation? If you
often tell yourself that you're stupid, find a more caring and encouraging
way to address yourself. If you do make a mistake, acknowledge it, but
support yourself in doing it better next time rather than berating yourself
not a great
motivator for self-improvement.
If your voice continually points up your weaknesses, look instead for your
strengths. Tell the voice that while you may never live up to your sister's
artistic abilities, you have a talent all your own that's worthwhile and
valuable. That while you couldn't make it into Harvard, you have great
people skills that make a difference in many lives or you're a wiz at
fixing computers. Or you may need to admit to yourself that you have an
gift, even thought it might make people jealous.
* Identify the underlying fear.
What's the worst thing that could happen if you didn't listen to your
critic? As a child, you might not have had the resources to handle that. As
an adult, you do. Or you can develop them. And if you really look at the
fears and test them, in many cases, the child's fears are no longer a
adult, or they no longer need to be.
* Talk to your inner critics.
Find out what they have to say about you. In most cases, when you hear how
extreme and absurd their criticisms are, it will be easier to dismiss them.
Notice how contradictory they are -- they'll find something wrong no
matter what you do! On one day, they'll criticize you for not being
talented enough. On another, they'll criticize you for looking too good and
Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone have developed a technology called "Voice
Dialogue,"* in which they work with clients to interact with numerous inner
voices, one of which is the Inner Critic. You can also do this using
meditation, journaling or opposite-hand writing, in which you write your
questions with your dominant hand and respond to them using the hand you
* When doing your creative work, keep the critic in its place.
There's a time to create and a time to evaluate. When you're in the midst
of the creative process, you don't want this judging presence looking over
your shoulder, stopping the flow of creativity. Later, you want to be able
to discern what works, what doesn't, what improvements are needed. That's
voice becomes useful.
* Build your self-esteem.
Seek out and remind yourself what's good about you and what you do well.
When you do that, you become less vulnerable to outside "attacks."
Ironically, the more we give our inner critic free rein, the more outer
to show up around us.
* Become your own authority.
By listening to inner and outer critics, you give them power over you.
Whose approval are you always looking to get? What gives their opinions
more weight than yours? When you were a child, it could be devastating, a
seeming threat to your survival, to lose the approval of parents and
teachers. But you're an adult now with a much wider range of choices and
capabilities. It might hurt to lose outside approval, but you don't need it
While you can learn technique and skills, true creativity is unique to you,
and you need to follow your own muse. That's how we achieve innovation of
expression in the arts. Caroline Myss, in her work, talks about our
"tribe." This can be our family, our colleagues, or some other peer group.
In order to be part of the group, certain behavior is expected. But in
order to individuate, to live your life by your own ideas and values, you
need to break away from the tribe, at least for a time. That can be
it can also afford you tremendous freedom.
* Keep things in perspective.
Even if you have an incredible teacher whose judgments you value, don't
allow them to diminish your self-trust. Mentoring is great, but not at the
expense of your self-esteem and creativity. Your opinion matters, too.
Remember, Freud didn't approve of the direction his student Karl Jung took.
What a loss it would have been had Jung limited himself in order to please
* Be more gentle with yourself.
Instead of listening to your inner critic, give yourself the love and
approval you want. True, some of what it says may be true. Do what you can
about it, then let it go. Remember how annoying it was when your mother
constantly nagged you about standing up straight or being like your cousin?
The inner critic emerged to help you learn social behavior and avoid pain
by curbing your natural instincts. But you need those instincts to create.
As an adult, you know when and how you need to control yourself and when
you can let loose. You have the maturity to discern that for yourself and
no longer need arbitrary rules. There are still many places where you need
to control your behavior, but your creativity can be one place where you
can safely express yourself without limits -- as long as you keep your
There's one more thing you need to know. The voice of the inner critic is
not going to go away. Not completely. And you don't want to force it to go
away -- as they say, what you resist persists. But the good news is, you
can teach it to speak to you in a more positive, constructive way. Listen
to it if you choose, but make your own judgments as the adult you are.
A special thanks to Roberta W. of New Hampshire for inspiring this article.
*For more information on Voice Dialogue, visit http://www.delos-inc.org.
When you want to bypass your inner critic, try writing or drawing with
crayons on big sheets of construction paper to tap into the innocence of
the child within you.
"Be yourself and think for yourself; and while your conclusions may not be infallible, they will be nearer right than the conclusions forced upon you." -- Elbert Hubbard
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"Self-worth cannot be verified by others. You are worthy because YOU say it is so. If you depend on others for your value, it is 'other-worth'." -- Dr. Wayne Dyer
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"Many of us grow up with the idea that mistakes are bad, linking our self-esteem with continued success. We become afraid of making mistakes. So in order to achieve success, we tend to steer clear of areas that may lie outside the apparent realm of our natural talent.
In this perverse equation, the secret of success becomes avoiding failure, leaving much of our potential untapped. In order to reach our full potential to learn, we must accept and then transform anxiety and fear, relentlessly seeking accurate information on our performance. What used to be perceived as criticism now becomes a gift for constructive growth."
and Tony Buzan, "Lessons
from the Art of Juggling; How to
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Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset - Hal Stone, Sidra Stone
Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within - Byron Brown
Be Full of Yourself: The Journey from Self-Criticism to Self-Celebration - Patricia Lynn Reilly
When Words Hurt: How to Keep Criticism from Undermining Your Self-Esteem - Mary Lynne Heldmann
The Power of Your Other Hand: A Course in Channeling the Inner Wisdom of the Right Brain - Lucia Capacchione
How to Be an Adult: A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration - David Richo
L I V I N G T H E C R E A T I V E L I F E
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is a Life Coach, Publisher, Author and Editor.
Her book: Managing With A Heart: 205 Ways To Make Your Employees Feel Appreciated
Personal, Career, Spiritual and Creativity Coach
Certified Life Purpose Process(C) Consultanthttp://www.goodlifecoaching.com/
2000 Sharon Good. All rights in all media reserved.
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